There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.
Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.
The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.
Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”
That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”
There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties. Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.
Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.
And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.
None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.